Monday, December 29, 2014

A cautionary tale from the grinch of christmas past? Nope. It's about keeping the happy in Christmas - a post from Ginny!

The concept behind Barbara Frederickson’s and Marcial Losada’s “Positivity Ratio” is common sense: to be a happier person, you can both increase the number of positive experiences in your life and decrease your exposure to negative situations. At a certain point — the exact ratio is a matter still under scientific scrutiny — the positive to negative ratio is high enough to allow for flourishing, thriving, living our best possible lives.
  • Avoiding the negative could mean limiting your exposure to sensational news coverage, cutting back the time you spend in toxic relationships, or, in my case, staying away from shopping malls.
Shopping malls give me the heebie-jeebies. Long ago, I used to enjoy malls, but now my little Vermont heart finds them emotionally and aesthetically displeasing. Worse — much, much worse — malls are ever-grinding gears in the capitalist growth economy.which is destroying our planet one shiny trinket at a time. For me, they are the very antithesis of both personal and systemic well being.
Further, judging by my recent experience, malls are just not very happy places.
  • So why was I in a mall on, of all days, the Friday before Christmas? Well, as the late great positive psychology pioneer Chris Peterson put it, “Happiness is not a spectator sport.” This wisdom applies to many aspects of life, not the least of which is nurturing relationships and taking care of loved ones.  There are some things we just have to do.
On this particular day, my daughter Jennifer, her two-year-old daughter Madeleine, and I had spent three long days driving to be with the whole family for two weeks of togetherness (at the beach, I won’t lie to you!). We were going to spend the night with a friend of Jennifer’s, but we had arrived several hours early. It was too rainy and chilly to play outside.
Not only that, but Jennifer’s phone was dying. She is a hard-working single mom — redundant, I know, but she’s a tenure track college professor with a crazy number of demands on her time. She needs a working phone, for both professional and parental reasons.
But Jennifer’s semester had been far too busy to carve out time to go to the phone store. This day, we were near a mall, with extra time, a phone kiosk, and a toddler that needed to get out of her car seat and run around. Plus, many modern malls have indoor playgrounds which Madeleine loves. Not only that, Madeleine needed a snack. So when Jennifer suggested we go to the mall to take care of all these needs, it struck me as more important to be a loving, supportive mother and grandmother than to either whine or pontificate about how much I hate malls. Happiness is not synonymous with narcissism. Into the mall we went.
Strike one:
Immediately, we were walking through row upon row of women’s clothes, and I wanted it all. Oh, yes, I am as susceptible as the next person to the powerful forces of alluring displays and marketing magnetism — maybe even more so, since I am so rarely exposed to this stuff. I’m like an easy drunk. And I do not like this in myself.  At. All.  Right away, I was unhappy with my own shortcomings and with the whole damn money hungry mall machine but I kept quiet and kept going.
Strike two came at the playground:
Jennifer headed for the phone kiosk, leaving me determined to savor Madeleine’s enjoyment and try to block out the overwhelming stimuli all around — smells, sounds, sights — all designed to get me (& everyone else) to spend money now. The playground was in the midst of it all, but contained within by plastic walls @ three feet high, with a thick cushion floor and several modest climbing pieces for little kids to enjoy. In fact, a sign explicitly stated that the playground was only for children shorter than the sign — in other words, the pre-school set.
Yet, the small play area was filled with much older and taller children who were playing fast and hard, quite oblivious to the vulnerable young ones trying to play on the same equipment. Madeleine is a tough and brave two year old. She also loves to climb. I tried to let her do her thing, and not be an over-protective grandmother, as the hyped-up big kids dashed madly about, ready to run over any toddler in their way, or knock a little one off the climbing structure. These kids were not being mean — they were just out of control, and in the wrong play area for their ages.  Twice, I said to them, “watch out for the little kids!” Each time, there was a only slight pause before the mayhem resumed.
Finally, Madeleine had enough and asked to leave. I was more than happy to go along with her choice.
I can’t blame the kids. They were playing, and isn’t that what children are supposed to do?  I just wondered, where are their parents? I looked, and looked — their parents were nowhere to be found. Madeleine was in that play area for at least a half hour, and the parents (or other responsible adults) never came by to make sure everything was fine (which it wasn’t). Over and over, I wondered, where are the parents???  Or even a mall employee?
Very sad.  What is wrong with our systems that children are left alone — in blatant disobedience to posted rules — for such a long period of time?  Are unsupervised children deemed an acceptable price to pay for more money being spent?
Strike three:
Next up was snack time. The playground was adjacent to the food court, but have any of you tried recently to find a healthy snack for a two year old at a mall food court??? Really, how much of this stuff is even really food? There were cookies, pretzels, candy, pizza, Chinese food, and burgers that I wouldn’t have minded putting in my own system but that I was not about to feed to Madeleine.
Finally, I resorted to Starbucks, despite the fact that I am currently trying to boycott Starbucks (because, as a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, they have teamed up with Monsanto in a lawsuit against the state of Vermont because our representative democracy passed a law requiring GMO labeling of all food sold in our own state). Once again, taking care of my beloved grandchild triumphed over my political scruples. In Starbucks, I bought her a yogurt, granola, and strawberry parfait that seemed reasonably healthy.
As we sat in the food court, Madeleine happily ate her parfait while I watched more unhappy, unsupervised children at the next table. There were three children, roughly six to 10 years old, apparently siblings, and they were not having a good time. The oldest and youngest (both boys) were fighting, and the oldest somehow made the youngest cry in pain. Later, the youngest got his revenge by using his feet to smash a package on the floor — a bag containing what appeared to be the oldest’s new pair of sunglasses. The middle child — a girl — sat impassively throughout.
This went on for some time — half an hour maybe? I wanted to help somehow, but could not figure out what to do, other then tend to the little one in my care as we waited for her mother. Jennifer showed up, and then all three of us sat there for a while longer — and still the unhappy trio was alone at the table next to us.
Again, where were their parents?? Whatever the answer — maybe they had to wait while mom or dad was working, not shopping — it was a sad situation.  More mall fall-out?  Or just the way it is these days?  Either way, something is wrong here.
Strike Four: $anta Claus
Okay, I have nothing against Santa Claus. I like Christmas. I like this special family time, and exchanging small and thoughtful gifts — or, in our case, buying each other the experience of a vacation. I want this time of year to be magical for Madeleine (though not greed-inducing).
So when Jennifer’s phone transaction was finally completed, and we could at last escape this large glittery bastion of suffering, I initially had no problem stopping at the Santa Claus booth on our way out. Madeleine likes Santa Claus — she calls him, “a good friend.”
But there was, in fact, a problem: visiting Santa, like everything else in a shopping mall, is just another opportunity to turn parents into consumers and cajole more money from them.
Maybe my age is showing here, but as I recall, when my kids were little, the department store and mall Santa Claus’s were free. Sure, they were a way to lure parents into particular stores or malls, but the actual Santa experience did not directly involve commerce.
Not anymore. Now, it is all about buying photos of your child on Santa’s lap.  It is about commerce, not magic.
Technically, visiting this Santa was free, but as we came to the front of the line — staffed by photographer/salespeople, not elves — we were asked whether we were just visiting Santa or were there to buy photos. When the answer was, “just visiting,” I got the distinct impression that we had just become second class citizens in Santa’s workshop.
Madeleine was fine. She had a good time. She wouldn’t let Santa hold her on his lap, but she glowed all the same.
I was happy for her, but turning Santa into $anta cast a pall over the experience.  Is nothing sacred?
  • Speaking of sacred, this morning, a friend posted a great quote by Bill Moyers (another redundancy?) that sums it up nicely: “I believe that the fundamental war we are engaged in is one between a paradigm that commodifies everything and everyone, and a paradigm in which life, community, nature and our obligation to future generations is actually held as sacred.”
Yes, oh yes. I do hold life, community and nature as sacred. That is why I work for a gross national happiness paradigm and helping others grow their own personal happiness paradigms, governed by genuine well being, not internalized, insatiable, GDP-inspired desire.  As for holding my obligation to future generations as sacred, that is part of the reason I pour so much effort into helping my daughter raise Madeleine, in addition to the fact that I’m flat out in love with her. Even in that mall, the love between us was sacred — as it was for many others in the mall, I am sure — but not much else was or is likely to be sacred in any shopping mall in the near future.
Of course, there is much in life that is far more negative than shopping malls — but on both a personal and big picture level, it all adds up.  Thus, for my positivity ratio and yours — and that of future generations — here’s to a happy new year far far away from shopping malls. Salud!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Back in the USA! A post by Happiness Alliance Researcher Abby Morical

For the last three months I’ve been traveling around Nepal, trekking, living in homestays, learning Thangka painting and Nepali, and exploring different realms of happiness in such a foreign context. As a junior attending Bennington College, happiness is literally what I study, and while overseas I was considering its relation to religion, village life, and—perhaps most challengingly—within myself. Though I came out of it with more questions then when I
began, there were a number of observations I found myself making along the way.
One of the things that I was most interested in was the affect of Buddhism and Hinduism not only on the people practicing them, but on the society as a whole as well. For a long time I have been keenly interested in Buddhism, with its emphasis on loving-kindness, compassion, wisdom, care of the earth, and mindfulness seeming like a philosophy for life that would surely lead to greater joy. Along with this, enlightenment truly appeared the ultimate release. During my time in Nepal, I had a chance to stay at a Buddhist monastery, living and meditating with monks and conducting participant observation.
What I perceived was that, though participation in religion or spirituality does, as multiple studies show, have an impact on an individual’s well-being in positive ways, the monks at Namo Buddha monastery had a wide variety of things going for them beyond their religious practices. While most of them, from what I could tell, were not enlightened, and still felt anger or frustration, they didn’t have to worry about where their food came from or that they would have a roof above their heads, and their “job” was literally the most meaningful
thing to them. Along with this, the goal of enlightenment is not the same as the goal of happiness, but rather happiness is a result of the former. In this way, it seemed to me that the life of a monk may be a happy one, not only do to increased mindfulness and greater compassion, but also because of their lifestyle, its reduced stress, increased meaning, and strong community. I no longer felt like I needed to join a nunnery in order to receive such benefits, but rather considered that I or anyone else could shape my own surroundings and practices to create a lifestyle beneficial to me.
A little while later I found myself living in Balamchur, a small Nepali village. Another burning question on my mind throughout the trip was “How much is necessary to be happy? What are the very basics required for life satisfaction?”  And while the village was well off enough for me not to be able to fully explore that question, their way of life was definitely something that many westerners may view as “not having enough”. In a more consumeristic culture, where we’re advertised that you can buy happiness with a new car, houses that are floored with buffalo dung and filled with smoke during meal times may seem unsatisfactory. But while many in the village discussed the benefits of development and tourism, no one ever seemed to be in a bad mood either. I saw the men come in from the fields at four or five, while my father at home didn’t finish working until seven or eight at night, and sometimes even then continued to work at home. The small community often ate together, laughing, joking and dancing. Everything they needed they were able to make, and knowledge was passed down from parent to child. I found that many of the materials in our lives are not as necessary as we make them out to be, and that space created by a lack of stuff allows more room for human connection, meaningful activities, and less stress.
Though I learned many things during my time in Nepal, insights regarding happiness and otherwise, the trip as a whole was very challenging. I thought traveling would solve all my problems: I’d be humbled and glowing at the beautiful sights, find a new home in the culture, and become the less lazy, more well-thought-out, kind, and confident person I’d created in my head. But while it was undoubtedly amazing, it wasn’t like all my self-doubts, negative thoughts, and struggles were just going to magically disappear. What I discovered, however, is that that was okay. As someone who studies happiness, for the longest time whenever I was sad I considered it to be a failure, not only of emotions, but of my lifestyle, practices, and work. Crying was like getting an “F” on a test, and I had a million techniques to cheer myself up, whether or not I actually understood what was wrong. But beating yourself up about being sad, or getting frustrated with yourself for being angry only fuels the negative fire. What I learned in Nepal is that it can be okay to feel sad—to feel whatever emotion you’re feeling. Instead of yelling at yourself about it, accept it, examine it, and let yourself move on.  It’s much easier and kinder to love yourself during the times when you’re hurting the most, and more beneficial for you.

Abby Morical

Friday, December 12, 2014

How to Choose Happiness-Building Goals

How to Choose Happiness-Building Goals
by coach Andrea Taylor

Goals give you purpose and a chance to accomplish something that matters to you. But did you know you can choose types of goals that are proven to increase happiness?

Different types of goals exist. Some are much more likely than others to boost happiness. Let’s look at some research so you can use sound strategies to build your happiness.

Competitive versus Non-Competitive Goals

A goal is competitive when its outcome produces winners and loser. For example, if you set the goal to get a promotion, it’s a competitive goal. If you succeed, there are others who did not get the promotion. A 2007 report published in Social Indicators Research by B. Headey explained that competitive goals reduce happiness.

As for non-competitive goals, the research showed that they increase happiness. If you make a goal related to improving family life, making friends, or contributing to your community, you will raise your happiness. Because these goals create no losers, they also spread happiness to others.

Non-competitive goals can also be described as sustaining because they get you to build relationships, show appreciation, and renew yourself.

Goals that drain you are similar to competitive goals. When you’re going after more possessions and approval, you’re left wanting more even when you succeed.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Goals

Another way to look at goals is to figure out if they are intrinsic or extrinsic. C.P. Niemiec and colleagues reporting in the Journal of Research in Personality explained that intrinsic
goals include personal growth, community involvement, and health improvement. Happiness was increased among people pursuing intrinsic goals.

However, self esteem goes down for people going after extrinsic goals, like seeking wealth and fame. The same researchers found that those goals are linked to anxiety and depression. 

Happiness is Contagious

Goals that increase your happiness also improve the feelings of those around you. Happiness is contagious!

D. Goleman explained this phenomenon in 2006 in the publication Educational Leadership. Mirror neurons in our brains help us share each other’s emotions. We are hardwired to mimic what we see in others. Our happiness produces a positive feedback loop in others.

Become a Happiness Champion

For more inspiration on how to choose happiness-building goals, become a Happiness Champion in the Happiness Goals Countdown. You'll learn about ten specific goals that have been proven to boost happiness leading up to the new year (sort of a happy spin on New Years resolutions). Add these to your "happiness list" and have a happier 2015!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The ten percent...and the 40 thousand

In 2007, Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness, popularized her research findings that only 10% of one's happiness is influenced by the "domains of happiness," what she calls "circumstances" and most of us would call "the world" (or our environment, society, economy, community, government; the external influences out side of our control but very much present in our lives - you get the picture).  She relied heavily on her own research to come up with her now famous graph:
(Spoiler: take this graph with a HUGE grain of salt - in fact, a salt-mine's worth)

If you look closely, (e.g. in the notes for the chapter - tucked away at the end of the book), you will find that although she builds her conclusion on well-grounded work by the likes of Ed Diener, Tim Kasser and other researchers, her conclusion is based on her study of - and this is important - a pretty small "representation" of Americans; something looking like the 1%.   

In 2013, in her book "The Myths of Happiness" she reveals the world she is living in, and perhaps her blindness to the reality for the majority of this planet's population with some of her advice for happiness:
- Spend your money on experiences like a vacation (this in the chapter for the broke)
- Buy fresh flowers frequently instead of a big sound system (again, in the chapter for the broke)
and here I ask: Who are these broke?  Does she know what broke is? What it means to have to choose between food or health care and to not even notice the flowers in the grocery store because there is absolutely no way you will be able to afford them?  

More advice from "The Myths of Happiness":
"Do you have a tendency to be short with the people you employ or supervise - your office assistant, perhaps or your gardener or nanny....For the next four weeks...when the urge comes on to be curt or harsh, resolve to imagine that the person is your therapist, minister or boss, and treat them accordingly." (p. 180). OUCH! 

Now, this is not to say that Lyubomirsky's books don't have some good advice - they do. In fact they have some really good advice. It's just that they are grounded on findings that are simply not true for 95-99% of the world's population.

When I give talks on happiness, sometimes people in the audience will come to the conclusion (and often state it very loudly) that they just realized their happiness is all up to them - all one has to do is change one's mind and behavior.  Without embarrassing or humiliating that person, I give one of two stories to help that person understand how important equity and our circumstances are.  Here I will give one of the stories.

My good friend's son-in-law passed away three years ago. He was a father of 3, less than forty. He died of liver and kidney failure (was terribly sick a long time before dying) and heart disease. He was black, grew up in South Seattle, next to a dry cleaner.  Dry cleaner operations and gas stations are known to be among the most toxic sites in the urban landscape. One can't prove that he died early after a long illness from growing up next to the dry cleaner, but ask yourself: would you be happy if you or your children grew up in the same circumstances as my friend's son-in-law? Would you say your happiness, and the happiness of your widow or widower and fatherless children is all in your head? 

Truth is, we - from the researchers and scientists to the every day folk - don't yet understand enough about what makes us happy in terms of the "domains of happiness" (our circumstances), our "genetic set-point", and our thoughts and behaviors, to make the kind of assertion 
Lyubomirsky has. What is more, it is quite likely that all three are interconnected. Think about it from a common-sense perspective and it makes sense that it would be.

This week we passed the 40,000 mark with now over 40,000 individual people having taken the Gross National Happiness Index, a subjective well'being indicator based on Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Index and integrating the United Kingdom's Wellbeing index, and other important indices.   Each person received their own personal assessment of how well things are going in their lives in terms of their feelings, satisfaction with life and the domains of happiness (environment, social support, government, economy, work, time-balance, community, health and lifelong learning & culture).  When one reads through the comments and looks at the data, it indicates that common sense....makes sense.  Circumstances do matter, and matter quite a bit, for our happiness.  In the coming year, I will be writing on what the data says, and what the comments indicate. Stay tuned. 

- Laura Musikanski,  Executive Director, the Happiness Alliance home of the Happiness Initiative and Gross National Happiness Index.